Anheuser-Busch InBev: Compelling Short Candidate With Only Moderate Risk

| About: Anheuser-Busch InBev (BUD)

by David Sterman

You have to hand it to the executives at Anheuser-Busch InBev (NYSE: BUD). They struggled to raise the $52 billion necessary to buy out the Busch family and all other shareholders and were pilloried in the press for vastly overpaying for the venerable brewer.

Management made lofty promises in terms of cost-cutting synergies, and they have surely delivered. Shares debuted in the summer of 2009 below $40 and have steadily marched upward to a recent $64. That's a solid +60% gain in 15 months for a company that was seen as a no-growth play.

Recent quarterly results show that AB Inbev still can move the top-line. The volume of beer sold rose +2.1% in the June quarter when compared to a year ago, which management notes came from heavy beer consumption around World Cup soccer events. And the company is benefiting from still-rising beer consumption in places like Brazil, China and Russia. But it is also saddled with negative growth in the all-important European and American markets. The stock's rise seems to ignore the fact that the U.S. market in particular, which still accounts for more than 40% of company EBITDA, is unlikely to post a strong rebound even when the economy turns up.

AB Inbev's new management has focused so heavily on cost-cutting and emerging market sales opportunities that they have seemingly ignored the very strengths that delivered industry dominance in the United States. The company has slashed more than 1,500 jobs, many of them in sales and marketing, and is ceding industry buzz to the rising tide of craft brewers that continue to build U.S. market share. As a result, U.S. beer volumes slumped -4.8% in the first half of 2010, the worst performance of any major brewer. This business is all about marketing spending (in the absence of beers having flavor) and AB Inbev is reaping what it has sown.

Analysts at Stifel Nicolaus recently raised their rating on AB Inbev's shares, citing an expectation of rising U.S. beer volume. That sentiment has been echoed by others, which explains why shares have been on such a tear lately. But the rising volume needs to be understood in the context of easy comparisons to a year ago, when volume started to fall. Few expect AB Inbev to become a real growth story in the U.S. any time soon.

As noted earlier, management has done an impressive job on the cost-cutting front. Those efforts have saved several billion dollars, though they are likely to be completed within the next 12-18 months. After that the company will need to generate profit growth the old-fashioned way: through sales leverage. And without the U.S. and Europe pitching in, this will never be a high-growth story. Lastly, cost-cutting efforts may be partially blunted by rising wheat and barley prices, which are major expense components for brewers.

On balance, AB Inbev has some real positives and negatives. That alone should make you nervous about holding onto this stock if you own it.

In 2010, cost cuts can be considered to be the biggest positive. But those are short-term gains -- investors are bidding up shares as if AB Inbev was a high-growth stock. Profit growth is likely to slow sharply after 2011, as this is a mature player in a mature industry. Another key negative: the company still carries more than $40 billion in long-term debt and will need to generate massive amounts of cash flow to whittle that down. Further economic weakness or market share losses in the U.S. would imperil that plan.

After a recent surge, shares now trade for about 20 times projected 2010 profits and about 17 times projected 2011 profits. Shares deserve to trade at a notably lower forward multiple. Assuming investors start to look past the near-term profit drivers and eventually determine that 12 to 14 times forward earnings is a more suitable multiple, then shares are likely to fall from a recent $64 back to the low $50s or into the $40s, making them a compelling short candidate with only moderate risk.